LAX Security: Interview with airport police chief Patrick Gannon (Part 1)

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Police gather outside of Terminal 3 at LAX on Nov. 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Patrick Gannon is chief of the Los Angeles World Airports police, which puts him in charge of security at Los Angeles International Airport, Van Nuys Airport and L.A./Ontario International Airport. We met Monday for an interview.

Part 1 of the interview here focuses on the Nov. 1 incident at LAX, in which a gunman attacked Transportation Security Administration officers at Terminal 3, killing Gerardo Hernandez  and injuring several others. Part 2 — available on Wednesday — deals with the overall challenges of policing at LAX.

Your officers were able to find and critically wound suspect Paul Ciancia within minutes on Nov. 1. Are you pleased with the way they responded? CHIEF GANNON

I was very happy with their response — how quickly the responded, how decisively they responded, how they reverted to their training that they had received in dealing with these types of incidents. This is not something we never considered happening here at the airport. We had trained extensively for it. Their training kicked in and they responded appropriately and they were able to address the threat as quickly and effectively as possible.

Where’d the officers come from?

They came from everywhere. All around the terminals here at the airport. In addition to the people I have at fixed posts, I have people in cars, I have motorcycle officers, I have Segways. We had a good response and quick response.

How were they able to find the shooter so quickly?

My dispatchers did a great job. The initial (emergency) call from an airport employee was on a cell phone. The level of excitement in that gentleman’s voice made it tough to figure out what was happening. But the call taker was very calm, took the information and passed it along to the dispatcher who dispatched the units out. The level of professionalism on the radio frequency was amazing.

How many officers engaged in the Terminal 3 gunfight?

There was about six of them actually. They came in right behind each other, within seconds of each other and at some point formed up and moved toward the threat. We are not like a fire department when you come in like an engine company and you have six people and they are all entering at the same time. Our officers are in cars, on foot and on motorcycles and they all respond as individuals. Then they collectively come together and go toward the threat.

As the gunfight progressed through Terminal 3, were passengers still in danger?

Most people had tried to find cover in some way. We had a big group of people that exited the terminal and got onto the airfield looking for safety. Quite a few people found shelter in bathrooms and broom closets and restaurants and anywhere they could go to get out of the way of the suspect as he fired in the terminal.

How did TSA officers respond while the chase was taking place?

The TSA officers that were at that screening station did what I would want them to do. When the shots rang out in the ticketing level, they ushered passengers away from that screening station and  away from where the shots were coming from. They took care of those passengers. They didn’t hesitate. It wasn’t just worrying about themselves. It was, ‘How to do we get people safely out of the way. From the little i do know and from the surveillance footage I’ve seen, there are some real heroes among the TSA officers.

Did the chase go as well as it it could have?

I think so. The response was immediate. From the time that incident occurred to the time that the gunman was stopped, it was just a matter of minutes. In a big airport like this, to be able to respond that quickly and to stop that kind of a threat that quickly is — I don’t want to say unusual — but it’s really what we hoped to see. A lot of things went really well for us in that regard.

Some people have expressed surprise that this could happen in an airport, considering all the extra security at LAX. What’s your response to that?

I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world where you could absolutely stop someone who is hellbent on destruction. Last month I took a tour to Israel with a law enforcement delegation. We visited a lot of different places in Israel where security is a main issue including Ben Gurion Airport airport in Tel Aviv. We sat through a significant briefing on security and toured the airport and watched and looked at how they did it. In airport security circles, Ben Gurion is the gold standard of airports. I just remember the last part of their presentation, the final slide they showed me in a Power Point. They said in big red bold letters, ‘nothing is 100 percent.’ And unfortunately, in a society where you are trying to balance peoples’ ability to travel and to remain free to move about, you are also going to have vulnerabilities as a result of that.

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